Solo in SouthEast Asia

If I’m being totally honest, Asia was never high on my travel wish list – I pictured steamy hot crowded cities, and a very long flight to get there. I’m past the age where I want to budget backpack and stay in hostels. There were just a lot of other places much higher on my list, and easier to reach. And then, friends of mine moved to Shanghai. Having a local to visit totally changes the ballgame and is a great excuse to go someplace you normally wouldn’t. So, in the summer of 2015, planning began.

By Winter 2015, my friends had been called back to the States much earlier than expected. Oops! I was too far into planning and booking to cancel my trip, but I had also done enough research that I was getting excited about the things I had planned. I had only scheduled a few days in Shanghai at the end of my trip so that was easy enough to cut out. No need to deal with the red tape of China this time around! This is my SouthEast Asia itinerary for two weeks of solo travel.

I was pretty relieved that my ATM card worked with no issues!

Hong Kong Arrival

Again, not keen on big, crowded cities, I intended to avoid Bangkok or spend very little time there. I had a friend who told me about an elephant sanctuary outside Chiang Mai, so I knew I had to get there and it seemed as good a place as any to start my trip! I found a good deal on a flight to Chiang Mai, with an overnight layover in HongKong. Even with a hotel cost, it was still cheaper than the next cheapest option. (With no direct flights from Chicago to Bangkok, I was also trying to avoid a 3-legged start to my trip) My overnight in Hong Kong gave me just enough time to visit the Big Buddha on Lantau Island before catching my late morning flight to Thailand.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I spent three nights in Chiang Mai.  A food tour, photography tour and full day spent at Elephant Nature Park didn’t leave much down time.

Bangkok, Thailand

I then took an overnight train to Bangkok, where I stayed at the Aloft Bangkok for two nights. My first class sleeper car came with a pet roach, so I got no sleep that night! Originally, I only planned 1 night in Bangkok (mostly so I could sing the song!) but when I found out about Sak Yant Tattoos at Wat Bang Phra outside the city, I changed my itinerary to work this in.  An evening tuk tuk tour was the only other thing I managed to do in Bangkok! The heat was oppressive!

First class car (First Class is a relative term here)

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk Tour

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Next, I flew to Siem Riep in Cambodia to visit the Angkor Wat temples. I planned to take a bus from Bangkok just for adventure, but at the last minute found a flight for $70 and decided I had better ways to spend 8 hours than on a chicken bus. (After my first class train experience, I’m so glad I opted to fly!) In Siem Reap, I spent 3 nights at Le Meridien Angkor, a full day touring the temples, and a whole lot of time at the pool!  (Who can blame me, it was gorgeous!)

Angkor Wat

Le Meridien Angkor


At this point, I originally planned to fly to Shanghai, but instead doubled back to Thailand for some beach time in Phuket.  Here, I stayed 3 nights at the Westin Siray Bay, with a full-day kayak tour and again, lots of pool time!


From Phuket, I flew back to HongKong for 1 more night before my morning flight back to Chicago the next day. I hoped to visit Victoria Peak, but it was rainy and cloudy and I was exhausted at this point, so the rest of Hong Kong would have to wait for another trip.

Trip Budget

Overall, my itinerary got a little wonky with changes, and I was somewhat limited due to the fact that I originally purchased a flight home from Shanghai using miles (luckily I was able to change it from HongKong for $5 but not Bangkok which would have been much easier), but overall, it worked out pretty well!

  • Total trip Cost ~ $4200
    • Flights (5) – $1723 + 40,000 United miles
    • Hotels (13) – $717 + 30,000 Starwood Points
    • Tours & Tips – $662
    • Food – $365
    • Taxis – $237
    • Souvenirs – $200
    • Spa Visits – $67
    • Laundry – $40
    • Overnight Train Bangkok- 1st class sleeper – $50
    • Cambodian Visa – $30
    • Dog Boarding $100 (only 2 nights…thanks, Mom!)

For those wondering about all the Starwood points, I use a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card for most of my daily expenses.  I don’t travel constantly, or stay in hotels all that often, but when I do, I try to stay with one chain to maximize my points. Most of my points are earned through everyday purchases like gas, groceries and take-out…so much take-out!  The $95 Annual Fee is well worth it, given how many free nights I used on this trip alone!


SouthEast Asia Itinerary


Bangkok Tuk Tuk Tour

With a city as huge as Bangkok, I knew a tour would be the best way to explore. I also knew I would not be up for schlepping around in the heat of the day.  So, I was pretty excited to find the Expique Tour:  Bangkok Night Lights / Tuk Tuk Tour.  For a very reasonable 1850 Thai Baht (about $55) we had a 4 hour nighttime tour of Bangkok via tuk tuk.  While not specifically advertised as a food tour, it definitely centers around food!  I was quite full by the end of the night.

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk Tour

The tuk tuk tour begins at the Krong Thonburi train station, where we were met by our tour guide, Natt, as well as Expique owner, Simon.  Our international group totaled 9 – 3 couples (Italy, Austria, Germany) and 3 solo ladies (US, Puerto Rico, Australia) and we were divided into 5 tuk tuks for the evening.  We were each given a small pamphlet with a map showing the places we’d visit, as well as a few key phrases and random facts.

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk TourChinatown

Our first stop was the Klong San Market, where our local food sampling began.  I really liked the fish balls, which were little fried dough balls sprinkled with a spicy red sauce.

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk TourFood Market - one of my favorite items of the night - fish balls with (hot!) chili sauce.

We then stopped by Wat Prayoon on the banks of the Chao Praya river.  It was quite beautiful lit up at night.

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk TourWat Prayoon

Mid-tour, we had a sit down dinner at Thipsamai, supposedly the best pad thai in Bangkok.  I have no real reference point, as my only previous pad thai experience was at Uwajimaya in Seattle, and I was not a fan.  We were whisked past a long line out the door, and given menus to select our entree, and tall glasses of cold tangerine juice.  I went with the guides recommendation, shrimp pad thai, which was quite tasty and, interestingly, wrapped in a cooked egg.  (Eggs show up in strange places in Thailand, like on every club sandwich)

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk TourShrimp Pad Thai in an egg wrap

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk TourWe had quite the international group - Puerto Rican, American, Australian, 2 Italians, 2 Germans and 2 Austrians!  Thankfully everyone spoke English and of course the hot Italian boys were gay.

With full bellies, it was back to the tuk tuk for more adventure.  Next up was Wat Pho, famously known as the home of the Reclining Buddha (which, sadly, I did not see as it was closed earlier in the day when I tried to visit) With no crowds of tourists, we were free to roam around the exterior of the temples.  Our guide explained how all the tiles were porcelain from China, originally used as ballast to weigh down the ships coming back.

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk TourWat Pho

We then moved on to the flower market.  It is amazing how many street markets I saw in Thailand and Cambodia – all of them rolled out and rolled up every day. The flower market was huge, stall after stall filled with fragrant flowers, and women making Buddha offerings with flower buds.  Such a treat for the senses!

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk TourFlower Market

Our last stop was in Chinatown, where we again entered a restaurant and enjoyed some sweet treats.  We had white bread cubes which we dipped in a delicious bright green custard sauce. And I finally got to try mango sticky rice with coconut good that I was recently searching Yelp to see where I can find it in Chicago!

Expique - Bangkok Night Lights TukTuk TourFinally got to try Mango Sticky Rice - delicious!

At this time, it was nearing 11pm, and we had the option of retaining our tuk tuk drivers for a ride back to our hotels.  I gladly chose this option and enjoyed a breezy ride back to the Aloft hotel, arriving way past my usual bed time!

Expique offers several tours in Bangkok, and they are reasonably priced and well organized.  Throughout the tour, we were given cold bottled water, and even cold washcloths to cool down – an extra nice touch in the crazy heat! I would highly recommend this tour, or any other option from Expique if you are visiting Bangkok.

For all of my Bangkok pictures, click here!


Bangkok Tuk Tuk Tour

Tattooed by a Monk!

When planning my trip to Asia, I wasn’t keen on visiting Bangkok – I much prefer smaller towns to explore, and this mega-city of ten million sounded hot, crowded and overwhelming. (I was right)  So I originally only planned 1 night in Bangkok (yes, in homage to that awesome 80’s song!) – just enough time to pass through between Chiang Mai and Cambodia. But that changed once I learned about a special monastery where I could receive a sak yant (sacred tattoo) from a Buddhist monk!

Sak Yant / Sacred Tattoo

At some point in my trip research, I learned about Sak Yant, or Sacred Tattoo.  As an aspiring Buddhist, the idea of receiving a tattoo and blessing from a monk sounded pretty cool.  I already have two tattoos, and have always wanted more, but could never settle on a design.  Sak Yant would take care of that, as you don’t get to choose your own design, or the placement! Supposedly, the monk reads your aura and determines which protection you need.  However, both women who went before me got the Ha Taew, or Five Lines. Incidentally, Angeline Jolie also has several of these, including the Ha Taew, which is ultimately what I received.  Legend has it that the ink is also a magic mixture that includes snake venom.  Who knows, really?!

jolie sak yant

Wat Bang Phra Monastery

The monastery known for Sak Yant is Wat Bang Phra, about an hour outside of Bangkok. There are tons of backpacker blog posts of how to get there cheaply, but I just hired a driver from the concierge at my hotel.  For $75, I had a nice air-conditioned ride through the city and suburbs. My driver even walked me in, made sure I went to the right place, and then waited for me until I was done.  In hindsight, I wish I’d spent more time walking the grounds instead of snapping off a few photos from the car.

Wat Bang Phra - I hired a driver to bring me here for a Sak Yant (tattoo)

Wat Bang Phra - I hired a driver to bring me here for a Sak Yant (tattoo)

At the entrance, you buy a bundle of offerings – cigarettes and flowers – for $3, which you place in a tray near the monk.  There were also envelopes near the monk, into which I think I placed about $9. Or $3, I honestly don’t remember.  I then sat on the floor, the only Westerner in the room, and waited my turn. Monks are not allowed to touch women, and many will not give a tattoo to a woman, but in this instance, there is a man on each side of the monk who holds your shirt away from the area, and holds your skin tight.  No words are spoken – the monk goes to work, and when he is done, you bow, and then leave, careful not to stand higher than him at any time.  I wasn’t nervous about the tattoo itself, but a bit nervous about all the rules!  I had an idea of the tattoo I received, both from feel and what I saw the women in front of me receive, but there was still a moment when I left when I had to snap a pic over my shoulder to confirm. Totally reminded me of “Dude, where’s my car!”


I had forgotten that tattoos will be kind of messy and scabby for a while, so that was gross, and it was hard to let it breathe – I also couldn’t really avoid the sun or swimming pool as is recommended for a regular tattoo, but this is more about the blessing than the appearance so I’m not too worried about it.

My Sak Yant from Wat Bang Phra - a week later once it healed a bit.

The funniest part of all of this is that I had a small chili pepper tattoo on my shoulder – it’s so old and faded, I didn’t even remember which shoulder it was on.  It wasn’t until I was back in the hotel that I couldn’t find the chili pepper and realized that the monk just tattoo’d right over it!  Woops!

Sak Yant Meaning

Supposedly, there is a lot of superstition around these tattoos – I’ve read that some people were told not to share photos on social media, or the magical powers would be voided.  There were signs that forbid photos in the temple, so I don’t have any photos from the room itself, but I’m sure not everyone follows that as I’ve seen plenty of pictures online.  I got zero information about my tattoo, but a quick Google search was easy enough.

  1. First row prevents unjust punishment, leans in your favor when the area is gray, cleans out unwanted spirits and protects the place you live in.
  2.  Second row reverses and protects against bad horoscope constellations and bad luck.
  3. Third row protects you from the use of black magic and anyone who tries to put a curse on you.
  4. Fourth row energizes your good luck, success and fortune in your future ambitions and lifestyle.
  5. Fifth row is to gain charisma and attraction to the opposite sex. It is also a boost to the fourth row.

You can read about the monk who did my tattoo here, as well as see some pictures of the process. Here is another blog with excellent pictures of the entire process.

All in all, this was a pretty cool experience and I have a permanent reminder of my visit to Thailand, and hopefully some protection from black magic! You can receive these tattoo designs at many tattoo parlors throughout Thailand, but to me that was beside the point and I wanted to receive this from a monk. Even at Wat Bang Phra, you can go to an upstairs room and pay a lot more to choose the design that you want. You can also pay a guide service about $300 to escort you through the process, and one of the swankier hotels in Bangkok has brought in the monk who gave Angelina her tattoos – the price was well over $300, and included a trip out to the monastery for a blessing.

I’m happy with my design and I think it makes a great story- much better than the non-story I had for my other tattoos which I got when I was quite young!  Maybe I’ll even go back for another sak yant in a few years….

Do you have any travel tattoos?


Sak Yant Tattoo